Saturday, June 6, 2015

Following Coronado's Trail

In 1541 the Spanish explorer Coronado traveled north through what are now the eastern most  counties of Arizona: Graham, Greenlee and Apache. Coronado did not find gold in the city of Cibola as he expected, and I also missed out on my trip last weekend. All I wanted to see were some interesting AZ beetle species that I had not yet photographed, but along  Coronado's Trail it began to first rain, then hail and finally even snow, and I knew that I was out of luck.
But I did thoroughly enjoy myself anyway. While the Phoenix Valley was sweating under 105 degree Fahrenheit and Tucson wasn't much cooler, we (my new dog Mecki and I) were on our way to Hannagan Meadow, which according to Wikipedia is one of the coldest inhabited places in Arizona.

But first we had to get there, and the early part of the trip right after turning north from I 10 on Hwy 191 is not very pretty. The Safford stretch was endless and boring. Mt Graham invited on the left, but we it wasn't on our list this time.

Clifton on the San Francisco River
Clifton at the San Francisco River is still quite picturesque with its towering red cliffs, old buildings and some narrow old downtown streets. We missed out on the big Horn Sheep, except on traffic signs.

In Clifton Mecki stood unmoved and yawning right next to a rumbling train that shook the ground under out feet. The little guy is fearless.

In Morenci, it got depressing.  Freeport-McMoRan offers pull-outs to scenic views of about the worst destruction that humans can wreak on the earth. The huge pit mine, plus smelters and ponds of toxic sludge - eye sores praised as attractions - from horizon to horizon.

Freeport-McMoRan Copper Mine in Morenci
North of Morenci, though, I had miles of beautiful winding mountain road all to myself.  It is a popular trip for motorcyclists, but I met hardly any this time.  Wildflowers and fresh leaves on Gambel's Oaks and Aspen were soon contrasted by dark green conifers because the road gains quickly in elevation.  Stopping along this road used to be difficult to impossible and letting a dog out of the car was a real challenge. But since my last visit about 13 years ago many trail-heads, day use areas, little horse corals, and campgrounds have been added. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest has become much more accessible. A heavy price was paid, though: the Wallow fire of 2011 was started by an unattended campfire and left acres upon acres of burned trees and eroding soil behind. The scars are  healing very slowly.

But the fire had also opened up many areas for fresh growth and wildflowers, perennials and annuals alike.

Parey's Agave, Asclepias sp., (Milkweed), Erysium sp. (Wallflower), Orobanche sp, (broomrape), Yucca baccata (Datil yucca or Banana yucca)
The rocks in many areas were porous like sponges but extremely heavy and hard as glass indicating their volcanic origin. I bumped my feet against them repeatedly, but only a delicate little flower made me look properly.  The blinders of special interests.

Corydalis aurea – Golden Smoke, Scrambled Eggs
As soon as the sun broke through the clouds, insects were collecting nectar and pollen. Some plants in the mint family were completely covered in butterflies.

Strymon melinus (Gray Hairstreak and Callophrys gryneus siva (Siva Juniper Hairstreak)
Missing from my shots are the many Common Buckeyes. But the Juniper and Gray Hairstreaks were interesting and cooperative.

A lush Milkweed had attracted Valley Carpenter Bees and Sweat Bees as well as Small Milkweed Bugs and Hairstreaks, but no Monarchs, sorry.

 Surprisingly, a Bee Fly's proboscis proved long enough to reach into the deep throat of a Lonicera-like flower.  Acmaeodera bodwitchi (Jewel Beetles) were meeting on  Fleabane (Aster). At this elevation Oaks and Juniper predominate.

Looking east into New Mexico
Fantastic views opened as I climbed up into the Blue Range, new home of the first Arizona Wolf packs in decades. As problematic as their reintroduction turned out to be, it still gives hope.

Cirsium neomexicanum – New Mexico Thistle
  Along the road were fewer flowers at higher elevation, but some thistles supported a kaleidoscope of interesting insects and arachnids.

Sharpshooter Oncometopia alpha female burdened with some red mites, a leafbeetle genus Chryptocephalus, two juvenile jumping spiders genus Phidippus and two bees,  Dianthidium sp. and  Apis mellifera (Honey Bee) were only a few of the insects and spiders on the big thistle. They all had a great view!

Monochamus scutellatus (Whitespotted Sawyer)
At over 9000 feet elevation, the mixed conifer forest showed heavy fire damage from 2011, I had expected some wood-boring beetles to emerge from piles of dead wood that are still left everywhere. But the only one I found was a Monochamus scutellatus  that sadly had been stepped on on the stairs of the historic lodge at Hannagan Meadow. I saw another one flying, but could not get to it. So the photo became a restoration project. Still, the species is variable and I'm happy to have an image that has still all the characters of the specimen from Hannagan Meadow. See my reconstructed image on the right.

Left and middle Formica fusca, workers with larvae and pupae, right swarming Liometopum luctuosum
Most dead Pine trunks were crawling with ants of many species.  Camponotus sp. stood out for their size. One downed Ponderosa trunk seemed to boil with life. Large alates and agile small workers of Liometopum luctuosum  were pouring out from under the loose bark by the thousands. Seeing that, I understand finally why some pupae are so much bigger than others and much bigger than the attending workers. They must be the pupae of prospective alates, young queens and males.

Lacon pyrsolepis, Elateridae
Among all those ants, a click beetle slowly made his way, surprisingly unmolested. Its upper side was strangely textured, it nearly seemed covered in reddish-golden scales. I have no idea if it had anything to do with the ants, but most beetles have to expect vicious attacks if they venture so close to the nest of a colony. When I reached in to collect the beetle, I immediately felt ants all over me and they were stinging. The Click Beetle turned out to be Lacon pyrsolepis  (Blaine Mathison det. P.J. Johnson confirmed). While some Elateridae are obligate myrmecophiles (like those with bio-luminescence) PJ Johnson says about this one: 'Lacon spp. have no known associations with ants. Their larvae are saproxylic, mostly in conifer logs, snags, stumps, etc., where they are predatory on other inverts. On occasion they can be found in the same logs as Camponotus or Formica ants; I suppose they might opportunistically eat the ant larvae or pupa if given the chance. I have observed both Camponotus and Formica examine and then ignore adult Lacon.'

Nicrophorus guttula (Yellow-bellied Burying Beetle)
At night, I placed my uv light on the side of my van, but under a full moon and temperatures in the forties a single Nicrophorus guttula (Yellow-bellied Burying Beetle) was the only taker.

 The next morning, Mecki and I started around sunrise to explore some trails through mixed conifer stands and aspen. 

Interesting spiders: a cobweb spider on the wall of a restroom, a colorful Mecaphesa dubia ambushing insects on a cactus, a Tibellus oblongus was sitting on my dogs head, and finally an orb weaver trying to hitchhike in the window of the van.

Linyphia rita, Jillian Cowles det.

Jerusalem Cricket and Camel Cricket

Tenebrionid, Aphodius fimetarius,  Sphaeridium scarabaeoides
Under logs and old dry cow dung waited a whole different world - more spiders, but also Jerusalem Crickets and Camel Crickets, one as big as the other. Tenebrionidae, Aphodine Scarabs and Hydrophylids were hiding in those cool moist places.

Hannagan Meadow Lodge
After a good breakfast at the lodge and Mecki's short fight against two incredibly huge Malamutes I continued towards Alpine in rain and sludge.  
On the other side of the ridge, towards Eagar, there was no rain. At an old cattle ranch that is now the Sipe Wildlife Viewing area, the caretaker told me that it had not rained for years, but that the ranch boasted an average of over 30 in per year in earlier decades.

Western blue flag, Rocky Mountain iris, and Missouri flag. Iris missouriensis
I saw no elk or antelopes, only their droppings. The area was disturbed, very high in nitrogen and full of non-native grasses. Botanically the only redeeming factor were clusters of beautiful irises, which are of course considered a weed by ranchers because livestock cannot eat them. 

Broad Tail Hummingbird
Still, a creek ran through the area, so it was interesting. The thrilling noise of Broad Tail Hummingbirds accompanied me while I looked for small scale wildlife and found some. 

Callibaetis ferrugineus hageni, Ephemeroptera (Mayflies)
 Rarities for our dry state: Mayflies were emerging to begin their very short life as winged adults. Soon they were clinging to my jeans, my camera, my hair ... 

On a tent of caterpillars an assasin bug,  Pselliopus zebra seemed drawn to the motion within. Due to the low temperature and rain, all the caterpillars stayed home and were quite safe from this visitor.

Cryptocephalus pinicolus

Merhynchites wickhami (Western Rose Curculio)
Wild Roses grow along the creek, hosting leaf beetles and weevils. I had seen the weevils before in CA, but now I can use them in good conscience for my AZ beetle book.

Gnathacmaeops pratensis

 Some small umbelliferous plants that seemed to be quite invasive on the disturbed grassland just came into bloom. I found one single flower longhorn on them. With Bob Androw's  help I learned that it's Gnathacmaeops pratensis and this may actually be a range extension for this northern species (?).

When we approached the little mountain hamlet of Greer I had to seriously make up my mind if we should spend another night as planned or rather head home. From earlier visits I have a strong emotional attachment to the little log cabin town, touristy as it may be. So I had to see how it had survived the fire. Actually, one could hardly tell, even the White Mountain Lodge had been rebuilt.

at the Little Colorado River
The Little Colorado River still runs clear and fresh among willows and alders, the only Stinging Nettles I know of in AZ are still growing,  and Mecki absolutely loved it. 
But when the rain started yet again, I carried my camera to safety and began our long drive home.


  1. Great, thorough account of a classic-feeling adventure. I've only ventured into the Pinalenos (and Mt. Graham) and no farther on that side of the state. Legend, at least, says that the last Grizzly Bear killed in AZ was in that eastern region.

  2. Yes, and those bears could still live there today it seems. There is enough wilderness left, and elk herds ... I did not see them this time, maybe it's the season, maybe already the effect of the wolves that makes them more secretive ...

  3. From Rick Westcott:
    Very nice, Margarethe!
    I have never been in that part of Arizona. Never have I been even in the Pinaleños…driven on the highways north and south of them, however. I am sorry that the weather was not more cooperative. I know well how fickle it can be, and a friend and I experienced much like what you wrote about…in NM and AZ, at about the same time of year.
    Incidentally, in case you have not determined it by now, the two Acmaeodera you photographed on purple aster are A. bowditchi.

  4. From Brett Ratcliffe
    Dear Margarethe:
    VERY nice blog and with great photos. And a mighty handsome dog, too. He has the same coloration (black and tan) as my Dachshund.
    Ron Cave and I are now over half way finished with out next volume on Dynastine, this time on the USA and Canada. The West Indies volume is now in press, and we are looking for a fall pub date.

  5. Beautiful photos and language, Margarethe! Sounds like you had an interesting trip. I am amazed by the diversity (in appearance) of the spiders. Your new dog is SO pretty! Good for you for working on a book of the beetles of AZ.